When Starsiege: Tribes came out at the very end of 1998, it was the first of its kind: a retail first-person shooter designed specifically for multiplayer competition. The intervening years have seen other popular action games focused primarily on multiplayer competition, but none have had the same emphasis on teamplay in large, wide-open areas, with plenty of players participating in each match. Not until Tribes 2. Experienced Tribes players will find that the sequel makes relatively few changes to the successful core mechanics of the original but that it features substantially improved graphics, even larger network games, and more items, vehicles, and equipment to use in battle. For those new to the series, Tribes 2 also offers extensive offline training options. Unfortunately, a number of technical problems in the initial retail release have dampened some players' enthusiasm for what is otherwise an outstanding multiplayer action game.
Tribes 2 inherits its sci-fi setting from Dynamix's series of mech games, including Earthsiege and Starsiege. Much of what distinguishes Tribes 2's style from that of other first-person shooters stems from this background, including the distinctively large outdoor settings in the game, and also the focus on high-tech equipment such as jump jets and mobile armor suits. Most of the contextual story built up in the earlier games has since fallen away, along with the "Starsiege" surname, since most players came to refer to the original simply as "Tribes" anyway. But the context of Tribes 2 still lends some coherence to the in-game taunts and the mix of harsh environments that will become your playground. You have the choice of three classes of mobile armor suits to wear in battle--the light scout, medium assault, and heavy juggernaut--and they differ in mobility and arsenal. All the classes have a lot of equipment choices and can carry three to five weapons, plus grenades, mines, and a special equipment pack all at once. The inventory system has been significantly streamlined in the new game, so you can set up equipment presets that go into effect when you use a base inventory station anytime during a match.
Tribes 2's different style extends to its pacing, which is somewhat slower and more deliberate than what you'd find in some other popular shooters such as Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike. The first thing you'll notice in comparison is the effect that the jetpack has on combat. The jetpack gives you limited upward or directional thrust, and though it takes a while to learn how to combine this with ordinary ground movement, the combination is potent, so players in light and medium suits move very quickly over rough terrain. Players jetting through the air are quite difficult to hit with the game's slow projectile weapons, so combat between aerial players often focuses on trying to lead an opponent's landing to deliver explosive splash damage. The game's direct attack weapons make it possible to fell a flying opponent, and the new heat-seeking missile launcher adds an additional threat that's hard to shake once it locks on. The net effect of the game's mobile armors suits and jetpacks is to make combat less decisive and less deadly in wide-open outdoor terrain, while the explosive heavy weapons and turret defenses tend to keep indoor brawls vicious and short. But there's room for you to play various niche roles, such as when you're equipped with the cloaking pack and the game's new melee weapon, the shocklance--a combination that can be used to sneak up on enemies inside their own base for a fatal backstab.
The game's designers have made it easier to "ski" in Tribes 2, a technique discovered in the original game that let you move very quickly over hillsides by jumping repeatedly while running along the surface. Now you merely hold down the jump key to maintain flight momentum when you touch the ground. Skiing has been balanced to more strongly define the mobility distinction between the player classes and ensure that heavy suits aren't as fast on the slopes as they were in the first game. Tribes 2's maps are generally quite large, so heavy suits now have to rely much more on vehicles to go on the offensive and travel to the enemy base. This is key, because most of the action occurs in and around the map's bases and towers, where the objectives for the team games--like the eminently popular capture-the-flag mode--can be heavily defended, requiring heavy-suited players to break through the enemy lines.
The game offers a lot more than just deathmatch and capture-the-flag game modes. The free-for-all variations derived from popular Starsiege: Tribes mods are good for games with fewer players and make the most of Tribes 2's map style. Rabbit is a single-flag game where the player who carries the flag is "it." There's often a terrific scrimmage as other players try to grab the flag and make a run back to their bases. Hunters is reminiscent of the headhunter mods for other multiplayer games. As players die, they drop flags that can be collected for points at a central location. The real scramble happens when someone who's gathered a lot of flags is fragged, an event that's greeted with a jubilant "Yard sale!" voice-over as opponents gather to fight over the remains.
However, it's with the large team games that Tribes 2 is really impressive. The scale of these games is unmatched; there will often be 40 to 60 (or even more) players on a single server. The game's network code is quite good and supports these numbers well on servers with sufficient dedicated bandwidth, but some warping does occur in games containing many more than 60 players. The larger maps easily accommodate this many players and generally feature vehicle pads so that a portion of each team spends its time in the game's six vehicles.
There are many roles you can fill during a game of Tribes 2: these include sniping, setting up defenses, and going on runs in the three-man bomber to destroy enemy structures and turrets. It's easy enough to switch roles to do whatever needs to be done to help the team, so casual matches without explicit team planning can still be quite enjoyable. The game's command map makes the chaos of the battlefield a little easier to understand. It shows the status of teammates, base facilities, and the team sensor network that ties into each player's HUD. While the command interface is cumbersome, it does give you a fairly effective system for suggesting what team tasks need to be accomplished.
While having vehicles in smaller games, those with fewer than 20 people, can dilute the action, overall they add an extra dimension to the combat in Tribes 2. There are three ground vehicles and three air vehicles, divided among scout, assault, and support craft. Half of these (the larger ones) let two or more players jump on board, which can require some coordination around a map's vehicle pad. However, the tank and bomber craft require such particular cooperation between the pilot and gunner that it can be very frustrating to pair up with someone who's less experienced. Additionally, the larger vehicles are sluggish and can be fairly difficult to control, and you may even find that the nose of the larger ground vehicles will occasionally pitch up or down unrealistically on rough but relatively level terrain, seemingly due to problems with the game's physics. It's also frustrating that a mere brush with a tree at low speeds can inflict inordinate damage to the most imposing hovertank.
To make it easier to talk to other players in between games and organize teams, Tribes 2 has a number of online community features built right into the game. The active Starsiege: Tribes community is a strong point in favor of Tribes 2, and right from the start there have been hundreds of game servers to choose from. In fact, high loads on the central authentication and community servers since the release of Tribes 2 have made it impossible for Dynamix to run all the community services, but the game finder, news, and chat functions are up and working. The other features, like pages for team and player information as well as integrated e-mail and Web browsing, were working in the beta tests but have been temporarily disabled until the servers can be upgraded.
Tribes 2 is primarily an online game, but it does include more solo options than its predecessor. It includes five tutorials to ease the learning curve and introduce new players to the game's unique movement, numerous items, and command options. Many of the maps can also be played against computer-controlled bot opponents, which can help you get used to the game before jumping online. The bots aren't really capable enough to make offline games very interesting, and though they do manage to carry out team functions, like setting up basic defenses and executing flag runs, they aren't particularly good at it. They also seem to stand in place more often than you'd expect.
The most obvious difference between Tribes and Tribes 2 is the new graphics engine in the sequel, which was completely reworked to take advantage of hardware acceleration and more powerful PCs. If you do have a high-end system, the game looks good. On the maps that aren't fogged in by design, the visible horizon is distant and sharp. The explosions are suitably impressive, and there are some nice effects like footsteps on snow maps and variable precipitation. A fractal system also produces smoothly varying terrain textures that have a surprising amount of detail up close. However, as a result of these effects and the game's large environments, many mainstream systems play the game sluggishly unless many of the effects are turned off and textures are turned down. At these lower levels of detail, the game doesn't look particularly good at all, even compared to the original Tribes. To play the game well, we'd recommend a system with at least a 600MHz Pentium III and a GeForce or Radeon graphics card. As ambitious shooters tend to, the Tribes 2 engine has room to grow as faster systems become more common. For example, one of the systems we tried the game on, a Pentium 4 1.5GHz with GeForce2 Ultra, had no trouble maintaining a very smooth frame rate at 1024x768 with maximum detail turned on.
A lot of effort obviously went into rounding out the game, but it still has some rough edges. The game's sound is quite polished, including many prerecorded voice taunts that you can use in-game by selecting them from a series of quick chat menus. Tribes 2 includes a custom soundtrack--an unsurprising mix of electronica and guitar that you'll probably turn down before long. But the game's biggest shortcoming is that it released with several significant technical problems, which Dynamix is progressively addressing in frequent patches. The game runs without problems on many systems, but some players have had difficulty getting it to work at all.
Tribes 2 is an ambitious follow-up to the game that single-handedly led the charge of multiplayer-only action games into retail. The deep teamplay that you can find in large matches is incredibly addicting and offers some interesting opportunities to cobble together team strategies. The game takes advantage of skills developed in twitch shooters like Quake, but its slower pacing requires a more deliberate and diverse range of tactics. In the end, this will help give Tribes 2 tremendous longevity, especially considering that the original Tribes still rivals both Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena as one of the most played multiplayer action games. Tribes 2 isn't easy to master, and it won't play well on every gaming PC, but when you're up and running it's a tremendous amount of fun.